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Meek Looks Strong as Floridians Head to Polls

Florida voters head to the polls Tuesday to pick their nominees in several races at the top of both parties’ target lists this fall. Democrats appear likely to nominate Rep. Kendrick Meek for the state’s open Senate seat and are anxious to see whether he can recover from his expensive primary fight before November.

Republicans will be especially interested in finding out who will carry the GOP banner in the battleground 8th and 24th districts.

The following is a breakdown of Tuesday’s races to watch in the Sunshine State.

Senate

Since jumping into the Democratic primary in late April, investor Jeff Greene has used his vast personal resources to outspend Meek by more than 3-to-1. But despite the spending difference, the contest is looking less competitive as it enters the home stretch.

Meek has steadily gained momentum in polling since Greene narrowed the gap to single digits in June and July. One poll over the weekend found Meek leading Greene 51 percent to 27 percent.

Although Meek is favored to win Tuesday’s primary, he’ll still face an uphill challenge in a general election that features Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R). And although Democrats will say the primary helped get Meek into fighting shape for the general election, it was also an expensive warm-up. Meek spent about $5 million on the primary.

2nd district

Rep. Allen Boyd (D) is expected to pull out a victory in his high-profile primary against state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, but the contest hasn’t been easy, and Republicans believe the seven-term Congressman may be irreparably damaged.

The primary has been financially draining for the Congressman. Boyd has poured $2.3 million out of his campaign war chest into his battle with Lawson, with much of that going toward television advertising slamming the state Senator.

The race has also strained the relationship between the Blue Dog Democrat and his party base. Republicans believe the contest forced Boyd to move left and take enough tough votes, including his support of the health care reform and cap and trade bills, that won’t play well in the general election. Also complicating the picture for Boyd is the fact that Lawson is black, as is 22 percent of the district’s population, and it remains to be seen whether Boyd will be able to consolidate support in that demographic this fall.

Steve Southerland, a funeral home director and first-time candidate, is the favorite to emerge from the five-way GOP primary.

8th district

Even before freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D) became a champion of the liberal left and a lightning rod for controversy, Republicans were certain the battleground 8th district would be a top target this fall. But the GOP’s confidence in its ability to oust Grayson was never matched on the recruiting side. When a series of potentially strong challengers took a pass on the 2010 race, a crowded field developed.

Early this year, the National Republican Congressional Committee seemed to rally around businessman Bruce O’Donoghue, but the late entry of former state Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, an early potential recruit, complicated the picture.

Webster leveraged his connections for a few big-name endorsements, and O’Donoghue was hurt by a story about his failure to pay business payroll taxes. O’Donoghue is the fundraising leader but never sank the kind of personal resources into the race that could overwhelm his primary opponents.

Webster probably has the best shot Tuesday, but in a seven-way primary anything can happen, and O’Donoghue, state Rep. Kurt Kelly or 2008 nominee Todd Long cannot be counted out.

Still, Republicans are convinced that Grayson has gone so far overboard that they’ll be able to beat him with whoever emerges from the GOP primary.

“In a year in which all political dynamics call for a Democrat who is bipartisan, independent and willing to buck his own party leadership, Alan Grayson is the exact opposite,” GOP strategist Brad Todd said Monday. “Grayson is one of the most shrill partisans out there and is significantly left of his district.”

One thing Republicans do fear is Grayson’s $1.4 million war chest and vast national network of donors.

12th district

Despite a national environment that has tipped strongly in the GOP’s favor, Democrats believe they can target the open 12th district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by a single point in 2008. That hope was bolstered when Polk County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson decided to forgo the Republican primary and run as a Tea Party candidate in the general election.

But the campaign of Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, the national Democratic favorite in the race, has been dysfunctional, with high staff turnover and dismal fundraising. She’s facing 2008 nominee Doug Tudor in the primary, and even though he’s running a shoestring campaign she can’t take him lightly.

Former state Rep. Dennis Ross should have a much easier time wrapping up the GOP nomination.

17th district

The winner of the crowded Democratic primary in this Democratic stronghold in southeast Miami is all but certain to replace Meek in the House next year.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson, who succeeded Meek in both the state House and state Senate, has long been the favorite in the primary, but wealthy physician and first-time candidate Rudy Moise has used his deep pockets to emerge from political obscurity to become a serious threat to Wilson.

Moise has spent more than $1.8 million on the contest, including $1.4 million of his own money, and has launched an aggressive radio and television media campaign that has dwarfed what Wilson has been able to run on the just over $300,000 she raised for her campaign.

Moise’s campaign manager said Monday that internal tracking polls show the contest as a two-way race and that Moise had narrowed Wilson’s lead to single digits earlier this month. He’s been attacking Wilson as the political insider who represents more of the same.

On Monday, Wilson scoffed at the notion that Moise is any real threat to her. Wilson said her own internal polls show her closest competitor to be Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson. But Wilson said she’s “so far ahead [of Gibson] it would take a year for her to catch up. … I think I’m going to win by a landslide, and Mr. Moise helped me with his negative campaigning” because it fired up the base that has elected her to the state Legislature for more than a decade.

24th district

The GOP primary to take on freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas has come down to a three-way battle among businessman Craig Miller, Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel and state Rep. Sandy Adams.

Diebel was touted by national party officials early in the cycle, but her fundraising never took off. Early this year some of those same national party officials began touting Miller, the wealthy former CEO of Ruth’s Chris restaurants. Today, both Miller and Diebel have achieved the second highest level in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns recruiting program.

Miller has used more than $350,000 of his own money to fund an aggressive advertising campaign. But some conservatives have questioned whether he’s tough enough on the issue of illegal immigration.

Late in the campaign, Miller is concerned about Diebel. Over the weekend, his camp sent out a hard-hitting mailer in which he quoted two of Diebel’s former colleagues saying she was unfit for office. Some strategists wonder whether the nasty back and forth between Diebel and Miller has opened some room for Adams, a deputy sheriff in Orange County for 17 years before being elected to the state House in 2002.

Regardless of who emerges, the battleground 24th district will continue to be one of the most closely watched contests of the cycle.

25th district

State Rep. David Rivera is expected to earn the GOP nomination in this hotly contested open seat even though he’s ending the primary on the receiving end of a series of negative news stories. Those stories focus on a bizarre traffic accident from 2002 in which a car Rivera was driving collided with a delivery truck that was carrying the attack ads of a political opponent. Rivera has also been forced to respond to questions about a domestic violence case from 1994 that both he and the woman who filed the case say involved a different man by the name of David Rivera.

2008 nominee Joe Garcia is all but certain to be the Democratic candidate again this fall in the southwest Florida seat that Democrats view as one of the party’s few strong pickup opportunities this fall.

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